Cambodian land rights activists get year in jail for blocking traffic

Cambodian security guards arrest a land rights activist from Boeung Kak lakeside community during a protest in front of Phnom Penh municipal court on Nov 11, 2014. A Cambodian court on Tuesday sentenced seven female land rights activists, including a
Cambodian security guards arrest a land rights activist from Boeung Kak lakeside community during a protest in front of Phnom Penh municipal court on Nov 11, 2014. A Cambodian court on Tuesday sentenced seven female land rights activists, including a 75-year-old woman, to one year in prison each for blocking traffic during a protest. -- PHOTO: AFP 

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - A Cambodian court on Tuesday sentenced seven female land rights activists, including a 75-year-old woman, to one year in prison each for blocking traffic during a protest.

The women were arrested Monday for blocking the road outside Phnom Penh City Hall to protest against flooding in the capital's Boeung Kak neighbourhood.

They are from the few dozen families that have persisted in the area once known for its 130ha lake until it was filled with sand in 2010 to make way for a private development, displacing thousands who lived in stilt houses on its waters and surrounding banks.

Judge Mong Mony Sophea of Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled the women were guilty of "creating a public traffic jam", sentencing each to a year in jail and a fine of about $500.

The women, including prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny and a 75-year-old woman known as "Mummy", loudly and repeatedly yelled "injustice" in Khmer inside the courtroom after the sentencing.

Activists say land conflicts are Cambodia's most pressing human rights issue.

Last month, victims of land grabs called on the Hague-based International Criminal Court to probe their mass evictions as a crime against humanity by the state.

Aid groups estimate that 770,000 people, or 6 per cent of Cambodia's population, have been evicted since 2000, including 20,000 people in the first three months of 2014.

At least 4,000,000 hectares of land have been confiscated, which represents 22 per cent of Cambodia's land area, often for lucrative rubber or sugar plantations.

Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho) condemned Tuesday's ruling as politically motivated.

"It is a serious violation of human rights, threatening them against protesting about an important land issue," he told AFP.

According to Licadho, police arrested three other women and a Buddhist monk Tuesday when they protested outside the court to demand the release of the jailed activists.

Boeung Kak lake was once home to about 4,000 families and the now sand-filled body of water is one of the last large open spaces left in Phnom Penh.

The government has leased the area to Shukaku Inc, a private developer headed by a ruling party politician, ignoring residents' existing land claims.

The communist Khmer Rouge abolished land ownership during its 1975-1979 rule, during which many legal documents were lost.

Villagers, who often protest against evictions, are frequently met with violent crackdowns by authorities.

The protest Monday was attended by several dozen members of the Boeung Kak community, who claim their homes are flooded every time it rains and gathered to demand authorities fix the problem.